‘Getting great photos is a learned experience’

Photo naturalist Sparky Stensaas comes to Chisago Lakes

Minnesota is known for its lakes, mosquitoes and cold winters. But the state is also known for its many acres of bogs, including the Sax-Zim Bog located in Carlton County.
At the Wild River Audubon Society meeting March 21 at the Chisago Lakes Area Library, photo naturalist Mark “Sparky” Stensaas, the executive director of Friends of Sax-Zim Bog, gave a presentation with a slideshow and video.
The Sax-Zim Bog, is about 300 square miles of bog, rivers, lakes and meadows. The mission for Friends of Sax-Zim is to preserve, promote and protect the bog as an important bird habitat. The welcome center is open from mid-December until mid-March.
“It’s mainly a winter destination for bird watchers and owl photographers,” Stensaas said. “We get over 2,600 visitors from all over the country.”
The birds that people come to see are dependent on the mature black spruce tamarack bog forest. According to Stensaas, the best time to visit Sax-Zim is December to February. His second favorite time is mid-October, when the tamaracks are at their peak.
The great gray owl is a main draw at Sax-Zim.
“In 2004-2005, the gray owl population increased drastically because the vole population in Canada decreased, so the owls came down to northern Minnesota to eat the voles,” Stensaas said.
Now, there are over 5,000 owls in Minnesota.
Stensaas has been a photo naturalist since he was 16 years old. He moved to Duluth in 1981 and started birding in 1982. He worked as a naturalist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at Gooseberry Falls State Park, and was a ranger for the National Park Service at Jay Cooke State Park.
“The photography was to accompany my programs, and with the digital age, my photography really took off,” Stensaas said.
Stensaas lives in Wrenshall with his wife and two sons. He has sold his photos to Audubon magazines and Lake Superior Magazine. He owns two small publishing companies and has gotten heavily into posting natural history videos on Vimeo and YouTube.
“The process of getting great photos is a learned experience,” Stensaas said. “There is a lot of patience involved where I can sit for hours and not see much. But once in a while I get lucky.”
For more information on Stensaas and the Sax-Zim Bog, go to www.thephotonaturalist.com.

Mark “Sparky” Stensaas says the best time to visit the Sax-Zim Bog is December to February. An ermine weasel scans the landscape at Sax-Zim Bog. A gray fox walks on top of the snow at Sax-Zim Bog. A great gray owl swoops over Sax-Zim Bog.
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Mark “Sparky” Stensaas says the best time to visit the Sax-Zim Bog is December to February.

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